I thought my first post after my trip to Belgium last week would be about my walks around the battlefields of Ypres, but my mind is so full of the experience of seeing R.C. Sherriff’s play Journey’s End, performed in an Ammunition Dump in that Belgium city, that I want to talk about that instead.
This particular run of the play finishes on November 12th, so I urge anyone in that area or anyone who can reach it easily, to book quickly to see the play (details below).
Journey’s End is the only drama about the First World War written by a playwright who actually fought in the war.
Exactly one hundred years ago, Sherriff fought at Passchendaele in the 3rd Battle of Ypres and approximately 90 years since the play was first staged in London (with Laurence Olivier in the lead) it is being staged by the UK based MESH Theatre Co. in an old restored ammunition dump with 3-metre thick walls made to resemble the dugout in which the play is set, in Ypres, the town that was razed to the ground and re-built.
The action takes place over 4 days prior to the disastrous battle of St. Quentin and deals with the physical and mental ordeals of trench warfare experienced by a group of British officers during the run-up to the battle, the changes wrought by the war on one officer in particular (an alcoholic at just 21 years old, a causal effect of the war) and the effects of shell-shock on another. Only a few forward-looking medics took much notice at that time of what we would now call PTSD but which then was often considered cowardice, or if you were lucky, shell shock (after being named such in 1915).
The ‘Theatre’ is accessed through a couple of hessian sacks serving as a doorway to the dug-out, the setting is atmospheric, lighting restricted to a few candles and two or three oil-lamps which barely illuminate the smokey trench. Seating is limited to about 80 seats which surround a centre space on which the action takes place, the acting is powerful and emotional and being immersed in the atmosphere of the trench makes for a very moving experience.
The current run extends to November 12th with tickets at €15. Matinees 3.00 Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays with evening performances at 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, the performance running just over 2 hours.
If you don’t manage to see it this year, make a note in your diary that the company will be performing it again in 2018, the centenary of the end of the Great War, at Thiepval, France from 18th September – 8th October and at Ypres, Belgium from 10th October to 12th November.
Having decided that sentimentality has to give way to practicality when one has downsized and lacks room, I am making strenuous efforts to clear away the bits and bobs that one brings back from one’s travels. I’m not talking the sort of souvenir that one puts on the sideboard or has pride of place in the hall, I’m talking about things like programmes, tickets and other ephemera.
And none that I have short-listed to be disposed of are causing me such a problem as these below.
The Menu on the right is not crumpled, it is the style of paper on which it is printed.
Hand-painted menus are a feature of most of Japan’s Ryokens (traditional Japanese-style hotels) and it was one of the pleasures of the meal to be presented with these delightful examples of Japanese art. Not only were the delicate floral designs lovely to look at but the papers were all of a high quality, often marbled or embossed. The smaller paper was usually the actual menu, folded and tucked inside the larger menu page.
The dishes on which the food was served were equally beautiful, dainty, thin porcelain bowls and plates on which the food was arranged so artistically it seemed wrong to disturb it just to satisfy hunger. I will confess, I didn’t always enjoy the food. There was an amazing amount of small dishes but the texture of so many seemed slimy (an overabundance of abalone in many cases), and when I did get a dish I could enjoy it was of minuscule proportions.
However, here are some pictures of the food. Enjoy these while I try and decide whether I can throw away these lovely menus, or if I can think of another use for them.
All these pictures were taken by one of my travelling companions, Steve Moore, who enjoyed the food on every occasion. I think it shows in his compositions.
There was usually one dish that had to be cooked personally, so a miniature barbecue or a dish of oil would be on the table (one for each person). Nothing too difficult, small pieces of Kobe beef, fish fillets, that sort of thing.
As the menus were in Japanese we were never sure of what we were eating. The waiter/waitress took great care to explain each dish but sometimes there was no translation for what we were faced with, something very pink turned out to be ginger, something that looked like a bean was a paste formed into the shape of a bean.
Imagine the time it took just to arrange these items on the plate.
The camel was probably laughing at the tourists who were trying to bribe the owners of the few horses that were there to help those who couldn’t walk through the old city in the heat. I won’t disclose the nationality of those who had disembarked from a cruise ship and thought to buy their way on to a horse, but they all seemed overweight to me. Surprisingly, in this poor country, the horse owners insisted on first come firsdt served. Or could there have been someone overlooking overlooking the situation, who wasn’t obvious to us?
Another reminder from that trip. One in our group asked the guide if he could stop the sellers of jewellery from pestering us. He just quietly said., “No, Madam. Your buying a small trinket from him could mean the difference between his children eating tonight or not”. Something I’ve never forgotten when I’m feeling under pressure from itinerant sellers.
Dubai is not one of my favourite places, but it’s a place that fascinates me. The most blingtastic city in the world, it outdoes anything you can think of. The excesses of Las Vegas or old Hollywood are as budget ventures besides the seemingly untold wealth on which Dubai runs.
This is so very obvious on its streets and in its architecture, whether you are walking through the gold souk or one of the outrageously expensive Malls, from the Bugatti in a roped-off area to the £105 it can cost you to reach the Top of the Burj to gaze out on the desert below.
How many of the thousands who ascend the famous ‘fastest lifts in the world’ having paid a couple of week’s salary of a local immigrant worker to do so, think that what they are looking out on is what was actually here before the ‘miracle’ of modern Dubai – desert. Is someone having a laugh?
Horse-racing, motor-racing, tennis and athletics featuring the world’s top sportsmen regularly amuse local and visiting wealthy patrons, operas featuring singers from the MET and the ROH, La Scala and Teatro Massino are constant events, and pop concerts where mega-stars rock up to perform for astronomical sums of money, mean that Dubai is no longer an isolated desert kingdom but a major player in the entertainment field.
Do you want to go skiing in the middle of a 45-degree summer? Dubai can accommodate that. Do you want to go Wadi-bashing in the desert in a 4WD at night? Ditto? Or how about sleeping under the stars (glamping, of course), eating in a restaurant with exotic fish swimming by, sailing along canals as though in Venice, or ballooning with a falcon? All of these Dubai can offer.
But if you can turn away from the glitz and glamour for a moment, there are quieter pleasures to be had. Swimming in the beautiful Arabian Sea (admittedly not so nice now that they have built The Palm and The World in the said sea), surfing, crisscrossing the Creek on Abras and just wandering, fingering the silks and satins and bartering with the shopkeepers in the old part of town, and watching the porters carry the heavy loads to the boats in the Creek getting ready for the journey across the sea to India.
Judge for yourself. You’ll love it or hate it, or like me be fascinated by it while being depressed by the knowledge that all this is built on the shoulders of immigrant workers from India & Pakistan, poorly paid and poorly housed. The argument that they might otherwise be starving in their home countries is used a lot in Dubai to justify the continued expansion of the city. That’s not a valid Aargument in this day and age, is it?
NB; Things are improving – somewhat. Only about 20 years ago, there used to be camel races where little boys of 4, 5 and 6 were velcroed to the saddles as jockeys. A great scandal rocked the kingdom when one of the camel owners left a boy to die in the desert (he’d becomet too old at eight to be light enough to ride the camel. Laws now state that no one under 14 can be employed as a camel-racer but rumours abound that there is still illegal racing in parts of the UAE.
And finally, an irresistible selection of lavatories. Spoilt for choice, aren’t you?
Writing is at standstill at the moment as I have an eye problem that prevents me from working on the computer (or it takes so long that I can’t do it anyway), so as doorways seems a popular feature of blogs, I thought I’d dig out a few of my favourites. The featured image is of a street of blue doors in East London, the others follow:
You’ve seen pictures of the Balinese: slim, elegant and with perfect white teeth that dazzle in a smile of such beauty that you wonder at the brushing process that produces such perfection? Wonder no more.
It was in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s that we made the trip to Bali, long before teeth-whitening was the commonplace procedure it is today, and long before the need for a mouthful of blindingly white teeth was considered necessary.
The Balinese are a friendly people and Hari, who early in the holiday had attached himself to us, announced one morning that we were invited to the wedding of his cousin, village chieftain and head of a very extended famil in the interior of the island. As it turned out, the marriage ceremony wasn’t the highlight of the day.
The youthful chief who came to greet us after our four-hour drive had just such a smile. Incredibly handsome in a gold-embroidered white tunic, gold slippers on his feet, a white and gold Nehru style hat upon his head, his smile of welcome made my fingers itch for my camera although courtesy required that I take no photographs
After our arrival, there was a general movement of the guests towards a canopy-covered dais which had been set up in the middle of the courtyard. Room was made for us in the front row and glasses of the sticky, sweet, lurid-hued drinks the Balinese like were placed in our hands.
All eyes now turned towards the left of the stage as through the curtains emerged the bride. It is difficult not to lapse into hyperbole when it comes to describing her, even from this distance in time. She was just incredibly beautiful.
A frisson of excitement came from the crowd as from the other side of the stage emerged a very old man dressed in white and carrying what looked like a carpet-bag. He bent over the bride and opened her mouth to examine her teeth. He smoothed her cheeks with his hands and mumbled some words which could have been a prayer. Then from his bag, he produced what I’m sure was an industrial file, some six to eight inches long. This he placed against her teeth.
From my vantage point in the front row, I stared, incomprehension turning to incredulity. A moment later the filing began. As she gripped the sides of the divan until the knuckles showed white, the old man wielded the file along the edge of her teeth, the scratching setting my own teeth on edge. Backwards and forwards it went, the sounds audible above the whispering of the onlookers, and backwards and forwards went the old man’s arm as he filed.
Once the filing was underway we, as special guests, were encouraged to mount the dais to inspect the damage being inflicted at closer quarters.
My husband was asked to record the scene on our movie camera (remember those?) as the chief wanted a permanent record of the ceremony. The old man continued working as we filmed, only once lifting his head and smiling with his infrequent teeth into the camera. By now the bride had a wedge of cotton between her teeth – to keep from screaming or to keep the teeth apart? I wasn’t sure. My smile of encouragement brought a squeeze of the hand from her and as I looked at the tears glistening in the corners of her eyes I could only marvel at the continuation of a custom that caused such obvious pain, has no relevance to religion, and which was regarded as a special treat for the bride. For yes, this was her bridal present – to have her teeth filed.
The teeth are filed along the edges until both top and bottom rows are even. They are then filed across until they are of a velvety smoothness, the result of practically all the enamel having been removed. They are now of an even size and a uniform brilliant white – like very fine porcelain – and beautiful. But the loss of the enamel means the speedy deterioration of the teeth, the juice from the betel-nut they all chew stains them brown very quickly, and before middle-age, what teeth are left are loose and discoloured.
I can’t remember how long the ceremony lasted, about an hour I think. I wandered into the eating area but I had lost my appetite. The sweet sticky drinks, bright red and green, and the sweets made from coconut milk and sugar served only to remind me of the early decay that they encouraged.
My few prints have deteriorated over the years and were printed on matt paper which serves to make them a trifle blurry. Etiquette demanded that I did not photograph some people at all and those I did had to be photographed from a distance. We were a long way from the tourist spots and even then, Bali was fairly undiscovered. Few people there spoke English and I spoke no Indonesian which made it all much more difficult.
This account was printed in Dental Hygiene magazine in the UK in 1992 and reprinted in the Swedish Dental Association magazine for the 81st FDI Congress in Goteborg 1993.
As Easter approaches, I am reminded of a visit to some Spanish friends in Malaga a few years ago when I joined in that city’s celebrations for Semana Santa (Holy Week), an unforgettable event. My photographs are not good, a combination of flashing lights, reflections, and crowded balconies and pavements: I apologise in advance.
Strictly speaking, Semana Santa is a religious festival, but with the solemnity comes carousing and fun, bars open until the early hours and entire families, from grandparents to babes in arms staying up until two and three in the morning. The two main Spanish cities in which to witness this extraordinary event are Seville and Malaga.
During Holy Week from early afternoon until well after midnight, elaborate floats with huge statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ swaying dangerously atop them, weave through the streets and alleys, carried on the shoulders of submarinos, hidden by the float’s draperies. They are accompanied by Brotherhoods and Penitents carrying candles and incense burners behind which come musicians playing hymns that have faint hints of flamenco. Good Friday is the climax.
With its aroma of burning candles, the mournful trumpets, the menacing appearance of the penitents in their white robes and white pointed hats, towns and cities across the region are literally transformed.
My friends had booked a room in a hotel overlooking one of the streets down which the procession came. The reservation included food and wine which were replenished throughout the night (I told you there was fun as well) and we stayed there until 3.30 a.m.
A bell tolled to herald the approach of a wildly swaying float supporting a statue of the silver-crowned Virgin Mary with a dazzling blue velvet cloak richly embroidered in gold stretching some six metres behind her.
Hundreds of wax candles surrounded the statue, illuminating the golden float, the somberly attired attendants, and the onlookers.
Among the Brotherhood members, whose honour it is to support and carry the floats which can weigh up to six tons, can often be found celebrities from the Spanish film and TV world, but they will be incognito, submarinos supporting the float from underneath a curtain, which hides them from view. During my visit I was told that Antonio Banderas was one such submarino, as he is known to attend most years.
In the hotels that line the route, the partygoers rush to the balconies as the clanging of the bell and the dull thud of the drums announces the passing of the procession. On tiered seats in alleyways, streets and plazas, the rest of the onlookers wait patiently, as they have done for up to seven hours, children, round-eyed and excited by the occasion, grandmothers fingering their rosary beads.
Those participating, whether as devotees or spectators, are often visibly affected by the rhythms of the music, the swaying pace of the bearers, the wailing of the sacred saeta (not unlike flamenco) and the build-up of emotion brought about by the statues of tear-stained Christ and Madonna figures.
Again, the bell tolls, and on a golden float lit by the candles carried by penitents walking alongside it, is a life-size statue of Christ carrying his cross on the road to Calvary, light catching the lavish gold embroidery on his scarlet velvet robe and glittering from the silver cross he carried on his shoulder. The costeleros sway to the slow rhythmic beating of the drums and the wailing of a flamenco song. The real Christ was not dressed in velvet stitched with silver as he carried the cross on the road to Calvary but such details can be ignored on this occasion when to dress the statue well is to honour Christ.
Behind comes the Nazarenos, followers dressed in white or black hooded robes that cover the entire body, the headpiece a pointed hood with space for the eyes only, the whole scene reminiscent of a Klu Klux Klan convention. It could feel sinister were it not for the party atmosphere among the watching people.
Goya could have done justice to the scene in front of me, a scene where art and religion merged into one theatrical event reflecting the culture and spirit of the Spanish people.
It was an experience like no other I’d ever had. I must admit also, that there was a frisson of excitement, akin to apprehension, in that the floats swayed alarmingly in the narrow streets and I was fearful that the candles would catch the trappings on the tronos or the costumes of the penitents or Nazarenos.
In villages, towns and cities all over Spain – especially in Andalucía – processions take place from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. Religious beliefs are not needed for one to take part. To a visitor, it can be a fun-filled Fiesta or a week of reflection, but it will invariably be moving. The only thing to remember is to dress with respect, i.e. no tee shirts or shorts.
Seats should be booked early, either in a hotel with a view of the processions, or along the route of the procession.
SEMANA SANTAin 2018 Sunday, March 25th – Sunday, April 1st.
Like many people, I hesitate to photograph people without their knowledge. Sometimes, if the mood is right, I ask permission, but then the people invariably strike poses or give an embarrassed smile for the camera. So, the few I have are usually street scenes or action scenes. Some I feel I couldn’t display publicly as they could be misinterpreted, have vulnerable children in them, or are otherwise not suitable. Below are some I hope fit the challenge and I have captioned them.
Palermo is this year’s Italian City of Culture. The city has stunning architecture, beautiful churches and art that is equal to that in many other parts of Italy, but for me, Palermo’s gem is the baroque Oratory of the Rosario in Santa Cita.
Tucked away in a back street of the capital, this exuberant masterpiece is often overlooked as one stumbles from one opulent Baroque creation to the next in this very theatrical city. The flamboyance is all inside the building, because the Oratory, by its nature, had to be simple. Perhaps that is why it is often missed by visitors to Palermo.
I first saw the Oratorio on the 1912 BBC series Unpacking Sicily, presented by art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon and chef Giorgio Locatelli. As the presenters walked us into a room whose walls were covered with sparkling white putti climbing and curling around pillars, playing with and teasing the allegorical statues I fell in love with the place. It seemed to me to be redolent of joy and happiness as the impossibly round and naked infants cavorted along the walls oblivious to saints or sinners.
Giacomo Serpotta (1652-1732) the Sicilian artist responsible for the interior of the Oratory was a sculptor of genius whose work in stucco* produced a very distinctive style. His work was already sited all over Palermo when he was commissioned in 1699 to transform the Oratorio and according to art historian, Anthony Blunt, he was provided with an artistically complex iconographical plan for the oratory.
In his use of stucco, he created a new art form. Sacheverell Sitwell, who considered his female figures to be the equivalent of those in portraits by Gainsborough, states that the sculptor lifted a minor art “out of itself into an eminence of its own”.
One of three Oratorios (the others being San Dominico and Santa Zita a few metres away) the Oratorio of San Lorenzo is a masterpiece of Sicilian Baroque. The artist worked on this interior between 1698 and 1710, and apart from the cavorting, mischievous cherubs, it features a series of 10 symbolic statues, plus panels detailing the lives of Christ, the lives of St. Francis and St. Lawrence, and one that tells the story of the Battle of Lepanto.
Of extraordinary elegance, white swathes of stucco supported by a swarm of putti flow over the walls; life-size allegorical figures sit casually on ledges as though at a picnic while cherubs play with the draperies of their skirts and blow kisses, and a cornucopia of fruit and flowers adds joy to the scenes.
The Battle of Lepanto is the panel in front of which people stand for a long time absorbing the detail of the battle, the virgin protecting the fleet, the stormy seas, and the two boys sitting on the edge of the panel, one Christian and one infidel, who resemble in every way – even down to their clothes – the street urchins one can still see playing in the streets of Palermo.
The 16th century Battle of Lepanto was the largest naval battle since antiquity. A fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of European Catholic maritime states of which the Venetian and Spanish Empires were the main powers, inflicted a major defeat on the Ottoman Empire in the Gulf of Patras. It marked the last major sea battle fought between more than 400 rowing vessels and was the largest naval battle since antiquity. Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was one of those injured in the battle.
I think it fair to say that Serpotta displays an anti-war sentiment in this work which I think was unusual for the time.
The altar in the Oratory is disappointing after the sheer gorgeousness of the walls. It was originally famous because of the painting, Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence (1609), a masterpiece by Caravaggio, but this was stolen in 1969. It has never been recovered despite a massive reward being offered. It is presumed that the theft was the work of the Sicilian Mafia and the latest rumour is that it was shredded and fed to pigs.
In 2015 a rather poor digital copy of the altarpiece was placed in the vacant space but it cannot be considered even a good copy.
And now I’ll let the pictures fill in the gaps.
*Stucco: The artist first constructed a model using frames of wood, wire and rags, held together by sand and lime. Over the model a mix of lime and plaster was applied, to which marble dust was added to achieve the smooth surface glaze, This was the invention that lifted Stucco to a higher level and Giacomo Serpotta is credited with creating an original technique that imparted to his work a lustre, not unlike that of stone or marble. Great skill and dexterity were needed as plaster mix dried very quickly but it was valued as it allows the artist not only to build up forms but to carve into them as well.
Address: Via Immacolatella, 90133, Palermo. Tel: 0921 582370